Exposing Trump's Decades of Deep Ties to Organized Crime

The first decades of Donald Trump’s career as a New York City builder and Atlantic City casino magnate are filled with lasting and documented ties to organized crime—including mobsters who went to federal prison, according to a recent series of detailed investigative reports. 

“No other candidate for the White House this year has anything close to Trump’s record of repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks,” wrote David Cay Johnston for Politico.com. “In all, I’ve covered Donald Trump off and on for 27 years, and in that time I’ve encountered multiple threads linking Trump to organized crime.”

“Well, to be a developer in New York City, to be fair, you had to, in those days—this is talking about the late ’70s and 1980s, early ’90s—you had to brush up against the mob,” Tom Robbins, who covered organized crime, labor and politics for decades for The New York Daily News and Village Voice, told Democracy Now, when talking about his report for TheMarshallProject.org. “They were a force both on the employer side and particularly on the union side. But despite that problem, Don Trump seemed to keep running into them over and over again. They bought apartments in his Trump Tower, in Trump Plaza. You know, they kept showing up as people that he was carousing with.”

Robbins, who called Trump, “the slickest con-man out of New York City,” said the Republicans had no idea who their presidential nominee was. But as he reported for the Marshall Project, which covers criminal justice issues, and Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning business reporter wrote for politico.com, Trump knew he wanted to make a fortune soon after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and found a role model in one of the sleaziest lawyers in America—Roy Cohn. In the 1950s, Cohn helped Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy persecute Hollywood figures for allegedly supporting Communism. Years later when Trump met Cohn, he had moved to New York City and was advising the city’s leading organized crime figures.

“Trump’s mentor on issues of politics and business was Roy Cohn, a lawyer whose other clients included a passel of mobsters, among them the bosses of the Genovese and Gambino crime families,” wrote Robbins. “Cohn… operated out of a townhouse on East 68th Street where clients Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno and Paul ‘Big Paul’ Castellano were regular visitors. Besides getting advice on their legal problems, as a former secretary later recalled to [Village Voice reporter] Wayne Barrett in his 1992 book, “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” the visits by the mob titans to their lawyer's office allowed them to talk shop without having to worry about FBI bugs. Cohn told a reporter that Trump called him ‘fifteen to twenty times a day, asking what’s the status of this, what’s the status of that,’ according to Barrett’s book.”

What brought Trump and a coterie of mobsters together—whether acquiring real estate, doing the heavy labor tasks involved in building high-rises, or pampering the high rollers frequenting his his properties—was Trump would do whatever was needed to create the businesses that made him a billionaire today, these investigative journalists reported. 

As the Robbins wrote, “To help build his first big Manhattan project, the Grand Hyatt New York on East 42nd Street, Trump had chosen a notorious demolition company secretly owned in part, according to the FBI, by a top Philadelphia mobster who doubled as crime lord of Atlantic City. To pour concrete for the new hotel, Trump picked a firm run by a man named Biff Halloran who was convicted a few years later for his role in what prosecutors dubbed a mob-run cartel that jacked up construction prices throughout the city. For the carpentry contract, Trump settled on a Genovese family-controlled enterprise that was central to another mob price-fixing racket, as found by a subsequent federal probe.”

Johnston, who won a Pulitzer for covering tax issues at The New York Times, said he asked Barnett—who reported for and edited The Village Voice—why did Trump work with mob figures: “‘Why’d Donald do it?’ Barrett said when I put the question to him. ‘Because he saw these mob guys as pathways to money, and Donald is all about money.’”

Robbins’ and Johnston’s investigative reports read like tabloid movies set in the sleazy 1970s and 1980s. Trump hastily demolished the Bonwit Teller department store on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhanttan to build the Trump Tower, where he lives and his campaign offices are based. As Robbins reported, “On paper, the demolition contractor was a union company, as were all of Trump's vendors at the time. But Local 95 of the demolition workers was essentially a subsidiary of the Genovese crime family, and few union rules were enforced. Most of the workers were undocumented immigrants from Poland and they were paid so little and so sporadically that many were forced sleep on the job site. A rank and file union dissident later sued Trump for failing to pay pension and medical benefits required under the union contract. Trump denied knowing about conditions at the work site… Despite Trump's insistence that he never settles lawsuits, he wound up settling that one for an undisclosed sum.”

Johnston’s reporting goes even deeper, questioning why Trump Tower and other projects are not using steel girder construction or precast concrete but ready-mix concrete—which can speed up construction, does not require expensive fireproofing, but must be poured very quickly or it will harden inside cement trucks.

“That leaves developers vulnerable to the unions: the worksite gate is union controlled, so even a brief labor slowdown can turn into an expensive disaster,” he wrote. “Salerno, Castellano and other organized crime figures controlled the ready-mix business in New York, and everyone in construction at the time knew it. So did government investigators trying to break up the mob, urged on by major developers such as the LeFrak and Resnick families. Trump ended up not only using ready-mix concrete, but also paying what a federal indictment of Salerno later concluded were inflated prices for it – repeatedly – to S & A Concrete, a firm Salerno and Castellano owned through fronts, and possibly to other mob-controlled firms. As Barrett noted, by choosing to build with ready-mix concrete rather than other materials, Trump put himself ‘at the mercy of a legion of concrete racketeers.’”

Apparently, this was the cost of doing business for Trump, including, as Johnston notes, paying for no-show union jobs. “Irving Fischer, the general contractor who built Trump Tower… said concrete union ‘goons’ once stormed his offices, holding a knife to throat of his switchboard operator to drive home the seriousness of their demands, which included no-show jobs during construction of Trump Tower.”

Trump’s connection to mob figures has an evidence trail that runs through federal prosecutor offices and into federal courtrooms, where his associations are part of the legal record. “The indictment on which Salerno was convicted in 1988 and sent to prison, where he died, listed the nearly $8 million contract for concrete at Trump Plaza, an East Side high-rise apartment building, as one of the acts establishing that S &A was part of a racketeering enterprise,” wrote Johnston. “While the concrete business was central to the case, the trial also proved extortion, narcotics, rigged union elections and murders by the Genovese and Gambino crime families in what Michael Chertoff, the chief prosecutor, called ‘the largest and most vicious criminal business in the history of the United States.’”

That was not the only example. As Johnston noted, referring to the hiring of Polish workers who were paid sub-union wages when clearing the Trump Tower site, “In 1991, a federal judge, Charles E. Stewart Jr., ruled that Trump had engaged in a conspiracy to violate a fiduciary duty, or duty of loyalty, to the workers and their union and that the ‘breach involved fraud and the Trump defendants knowingly participated in his breach.’ The judge did not find Trump’s testimony to be sufficiently credible and set damages at $325,000. The case was later settled by negotiation, and the agreement was sealed.”

On To New Jersey

Trump, apparently, has always said whatever is necessary to get his way—even if it is directly contradicted by his past behavior. That was the case when he expanded into New Jersey and told the state attorney general, and later its casino regulators, that he never had anything to do with mob figures in New York or in developing his Atlantic City casino, the reporters said. 

Trump himself bragged in his book, The Art of The Deal, that in 1981 he threatened New Jersey’s Attorney General, John Degnan, with canceling the project unless the state limited its background investigation of him to six months—not the usual year or more. Part of Trump’s push apparently was a promise that he would oppose any effort to expand gambling to New York City. As Johnston noted, “Trump was required to disclose any investigations in which he might have been involved in the past, even if they never resulted in charges. Trump didn’t disclose a federal grand jury inquiry into how he obtained an option to buy the Penn Central railroad yards on the West Side of Manhattan. The failure to disclose either that inquiry or the Cody inquiry probably should have disqualified Trump from receiving a license under the standards set by the gaming authorities.”

But, as Johnston and the other reporters observed, New Jersey’s gaming regulators didn’t want to admit they made a mistake when licensing a casino operator, so Trump got away with that omission. Johnston then described how Trump had to deal with mobsters to buy the land for a parking lot next to his Atlantic City casino, which the state eventually pushed back on.

“Trump built on property where mobsters controlled parts of the adjoining land needed for parking,” he wrote. “He paid $1.1 million for about a 5,000-square-foot lot that had been bought five years earlier for just $195,000. The sellers were Salvy Testa and Frank Narducci Jr., a pair of hitmen for Atlantic City mob boss Nicky Scarfo who were known as the Young Executioners. For several adjoining acres, Trump ignored the principal owner of record and instead negotiated directly in a deal that also likely ended up benefiting the Scarfo mob. Trump arranged a 98-year lease deal with [Daniel] Sullivan, the FBI informant and labor fixer, and Ken Shapiro, described in government reports as Scarfo’s 'investment banker.' Eventually the lease was converted into a sale after the Division of Gaming Enforcement objected to Sullivan and Shapiro being Trump’s landlords.”

High-Flying Drug Dealers

Robbins reported another of Trump’s colleagues was Joseph Weichselbaum, who ran a helicopter service that ferried gamblers and others between his properties, lived in Trump Plaza, and “pleaded guilty to federal charges of cocaine smuggling in 1986. The men were close enough that Trump agreed to accept part of the rent as helicopter service in barter. Weichselbaum also maintained Trump’s own private helicopter. And when Weichselbaum faced sentencing, Trump provided a letter to the court endorsing his friend as ‘conscientious, forthright and diligent.’ Weichselbaum received a three-year sentence and came home to reside in an even posher pad at Trump Tower, where his girlfriend had managed to buy two combined apartments. When Trump was asked in 1990 by casino officials about his letter to the judge on Weichselbaum’s behalf, the casino mogul could not recall having written it.”

Johnston's report added, “Trump and Weichselbaum were so close, Barrett reported in his book, that Weichselbaum told his parole officer about how he knew Trump was hiding his mistress, Marla Maples, from his first wife, Ivana, and tried to persuade Trump to end their years-long affair.” Trump continued to use Weichselbaum’s firm after he was indicted in Ohio on charges of trafficking in marijuana and cocaine, “conduct that again could have cost Trump his casino license had state regulators pressed the matter, because casino owners were required to distance themselves from any hint of crime.”

Fast forward to 2016, Johnston recounts his most recent conversation with Trump, late last month, where the presidential candidate downplayed these associations, saying they were long ago—and he could not remember the details, and then threatened him. 

“Some of Trump’s unsavory connections have been followed by investigators and substantiated in court; some haven’t. And some of those links have continued until recent years, though when confronted with evidence of such associations, Trump has often claimed a faulty memory,” he wrote. “In an April 27 phone call to respond to my questions for this story, Trump told me he did not recall many of the events recounted in this article and they ‘were a long time ago.’ He also said that I had ‘sometimes been fair, sometimes not’ in writing about him, adding ‘if I don’t like what you write, I’ll sue you.’”

As these New York-based investigative reporters have written in covering Trump for decades, his life has been about the next big score, whether it was getting a $400 million tax break on his first big project, building signature properties, obtaining casino licenses, getting fees for placing his names on products, and more. 

“Through Cohn, Trump made choices that—gratuitously, it appears—resulted in his first known business dealings with mob-controlled companies and unions, a pattern that continued long after Cohn died,” Johnston wrote. “What Trump has to say about the reasons for his long, close and wide-ranging dealings with organized crime figures, with the role of mobsters in cheating Trump Tower workers… and Trump’s seeming leniency for Weichselbaum are questions that voters deserve full answers about before casting their ballots.”

Whether Trump will get away with deflecting scrutiny of his past as the 2016 Republican presidential candidate is an open question. As we have seen thus far, he has successfully refused to release his income tax returns, which would reveal if he pays any taxes.

“We’re just scratching the surface here,” Robbins told Democracy Now, “There’s a lot more. This has been a deal maker in New York and across the world for 40 years. He’s come up against some incredibly shady characters. So now the question is: Will people get him to actually answer questions and try to get down below the level? So far, none of these [campaign] stories, I think, have scratched the surface.”


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